Warship Built in the 1700s Is the Oldest in the World Still Afloat, and It’s Still in Service

June 6, 2019 Updated: June 6, 2019

The third of six heavy frigates, USS Constitution was built as a first measure for dealing with the much larger British fleet. Winning hard battles and outliving her initial life expectancy by a full two centuries, Constitution is now a living legend—the oldest military ship still afloat in the world.

The initial six frigates were authorized by Congress as part of the Naval Act of 1794, the first capital ships of the permanent U.S. Navy.

The 221-year-old frigate was designed and built by Joshua Humphreys in Boston. His plan was to build heavy frigates that would be able to overpower lighter British frigates while outrunning their much more powerful ships of the line.

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180830-N-SM577-0014BOSTON (Aug. 30, 2018) USS Constitution sits moored pier side at Pier One in the Boston Navy Yard….

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The ship was long in the keel and narrow in the beam. She had a 21-inch-thick hull, was made out of sturdy live oak, pine, and even copper sheathing at one point, and was outfitted with a formidable 44 guns.

First deployed in the Quasi War with France, the USS Constitution took some prizes during the conflict but was not engaged in any attacks until the Barbary Wars when, in 1804, she and several smaller ships attacked gunboats and struck mainland targets in Tripoli.

It was in the War of 1812 against the British that the Constitution took her place as a war hero. After a tense 57-hour chase from five British ships in July 1812, the American frigate engaged one of those British ships, a smaller 38-gun frigate called the HNS Guerriere, in open battle the next month.

©Shutterstock | Jose Gil
©Shutterstock | Dominionart

During that battle, an American sailor witnessed British cannonballs bouncing harmlessly off the hull of his ship. He reportedly shouted out, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” Which, it is said, led to the vessel eventually garnering the nickname “Old Ironsides.”

A broadside attack from the Americans took out Guerriere’s aft mast and led to a collision between the two vessels. Soon, Old Ironsides took out the other two masts of the British ship; they surrendered and were taken aboard the Constitution. The Guerriere had been so badly damaged that it was deemed unsalvageable and was burned.

Another battle took place in December 1812 against the HMS Java. The two ships became entangled during the engagement; Java took heavy casualties and had lost her captain, and they eventually surrendered after sustaining heavy damage.

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After this defeat, the British Admiralty issued orders that only ships of the line or squadrons were to engage the stout American frigates.

Constitution was given a hero’s welcome by cheering crowds when she returned to port in Boston.

Old Ironsides’s last battle took place in February 1815, a few days after the Treaty of Ghent was ratified, ending the War of 1812. Yet the Constitution has not yet gotten the message, as they were across the Atlantic, near the island of Madeira. They gave chase to two smaller British warships, the HMS Levant and HMS Cyane, but with a larger arsenal, the Constitution had the advantage.

180921-N-YC286-0041BOSTON (Sept. 21, 2018) USS Constitution fires a 21-gun salute during 'Old Ironsides' underway…

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The Americans ended up capturing both vessels (although the British soon took back the Levant), while sustaining only minor damage, despite finding twelve 32-pound cannonballs in the hull.

In the years following her last battle, Old Ironsides’s duties were relegated from patrolling the Mediterranean to becoming a public icon, eventually only traveling by being towed. She was (reportedly) almost scrapped twice but for public outcry by Americans.

When Boston Advertiser reported that the ship was to be discarded in 1830, a poet named Oliver Wendell wrote his best-known poem where he declared, “The harpies of the shore shall pluck/The eagle of the sea!” which rallied the public, and thus resulted in the vessel’s restoration.

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The historic vessel served various uses and underwent continual repairs and modifications over the decades, and then centuries, that followed. Old Ironsides celebrated the 200th anniversary of her launch in 1997, during which she marked the occasion by sailing under her own power for the first time in 116 years.

The symbolic act was repeated in 2012 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of her victory against the HMS Guerriere.

The Constitution is currently berthed in Charlestown Navy Yard, and is manned by Navy sailors who deem their post as “special duty.” The ship partakes in a 21-gun salute in the Boston Harbor every 4th of July in celebration of America’s Independence Day.

Reason #221 to visit the Charlestown Navy Yard, the early morning sun always rises and shines on the undefeated!

Posted by USS Constitution on Saturday, October 20, 2018